British Cycling: A Big Data Champion?

Big_Data
British Cycling: A Big Data Champion?

I think I may have gone to too many conferences in 2014 in which the potential of big data was discussed.  After a while all the stories blurred into two main themes:

  1. Companies have gone bankrupt at a time when demand for their core products increased.
  2. Data from mobile phones, cars and other machines house a gold mine of value – we should all be using it.

My main take away from 2014 conferences was that no amount of data is a substitute for poor strategy, or lack of organisational agility to adapt business processes in times of disruption.  However, I still feel as an industry our stories are stuck in the phase of ‘Big Data Hype’, but most organisations are beyond the hype and need practicalities, guidance and inspiration to turn their big data projects into a success.  This is possibly due to a limited number of big data projects in production, or perhaps it is too early to measure the long term results of existing projects.  Another possibility is that the projects are delivering significant competitive advantage, so the stories will remain under wraps for the time being.

However, towards the end of 2014 I stumbled across a big data success story in an unexpected place.  It did (literally) provide competitive advantage, and since it has been running for a number of years the results are plain to see.  It started with a book recommendation from a friend.   ‘Faster’ by Michael Hutchinson is written as a self-propelled investigation as to the difference between world champion and world class althletes.  It promised to satisfy my slightly geeky tendency to enjoy facts, numerical details and statistics.  It did this – but it really struck me as a ‘how-to’ guide for big data projects.

Mr Hutchinson’s book is an excellent read as an insight into professional cycling by a professional cyclist.  It is stacked with interesting facts and well-written anecdotes, and I highly recommend the reading the book.  Since the big-data aspect was a sub-plot, I will pull out the highlights without distracting from the main story.

Here are the five steps I extracted for big data project success:

1. Have a clear vision and goal for your project

The Sydney Olympics in 2000 had only produced 4 medals across all cycling disciplines for British cyclists.  With a home Olympics set for 2012, British Cycling desperately wanted to improve this performance.  Specific targets were clearly set across all disciplines stated in times that an athlete needed to achieve in order to win a race.

2. Determine data the required to support these goals

Unlike many big data projects which start with a data set and then wonder what to do with it, British Cycling did this the other way around.  They worked out what they needed to measure in order to establish the influencers on their goal (track time) and set about gathering this information.  In their case this involved gathering wind tunnel data to compare & contrast equipment, as well as physiological data from athletes and all information from cycling activities.

3. Experiment in order to establish causality

Most big data projects involve experimentation by changing the environment  whilst gathering a sub-set of data points.  The number of variables to adjust in cycling is large, but all were embraced. Data (including video) was gathered on the effects of small changes in each component:  Bike, Clothing, Athlete (training and nutrition).

4. Guide your employees on how to use the results of the data

Like many employees, cyclists and coaches were convinced of the ‘best way’ to achieve results based on their own personal experience.  Analysis of data in some cases showed that the perceived best way, was in fact not the best way.   Coaching staff trusted the data, and convinced the athletes to change aspects of both training and nutrition.  This was not necessarily easy to do, as it could mean fundamental changes in the athlete’s lifestyle.

5. Embrace innovation

Cycling is a very conservative sport by nature, with many of the key innovations coming from adjacent sports such as triathlon.  Data however, is not steeped in tradition and does not have pre-conceived ideas as to what equipment should look like, or what constitutes an excellent recovery drink.  What made British Cycling’s big data initiatives successful is that they allowed themselves to be guided by the data and put the recommendations into practice.  Plastic finished skin suits are probably not the most obvious choice for clothing, but they proved to be the biggest advantage cyclist could get.  Far more than tinkering with the bike.  (In fact they produced so much advantage they were banned shortly after the 2008 Olympics.)

The results:  British Cycling won 4 Olympic medals in 2000, one of which was gold.  In 2012 they grabbed 8 gold, 2 silver and 2 bronze medals.  A quick glance at their website shows that it is not just Olympic medals they are wining – but medals won across all world championship events has increased since 2000.

To me, this is one of the best big data stories, as it directly shows how to be successful using big data strategies in a completely analogue world.  I think it is more insightful that the mere fact that we are producing ever-increasing volumes of data.  The real value of big data is in understanding what portion of all avaiable data will constribute to you acieving your goals, and then embracing the use the results of analysis to make constructive changes in daily activities.

But then again, I may just like the story because it involves geeky facts, statistics and fast bicycles.